Herbert West

Just ran into an interesting question from a biology problem set:

” Using the laws of thermodynamics, explain why it’s impossible to re-animate organisms that have died ( making Frankenstein’s monster and zombies impossible so we don’t have to worry about a zombie apocalypse.) “

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70 Responses to Herbert West

  1. Synaspora says:

    What if you don’t accept the premise is correct?

  2. Gord Marsden says:

    I’ve been reanimated ,how dead is dead

  3. Same reason it’s impossible to un-scramble an egg, I would presume. “Living” entails treading a fairly narrow path through a fairly enormous state space, and once dead, the path is spiraled off nigh-impossible to return to.

    • gcochran9 says:

      of course it is possible.

    • steven p says:

      Many years ago I read an article in SciAm (if it’s online I haven’t been able to find it) where they took an image of the Mona Lisa, stretched it 200% along one diagonal and squished it to 50% along the other diagonal, cut the ends off the longer diagonal and stuck them in the other corners to regain the original shape. They then told the computer to repeat the process over and over and to stop if anything interesting happens.
      After the first few iterations he image just looked like diagonal stripes, after a few dozen iterations the image became and remained a featureless grey.
      After x number of thousand iterations (don’t remember how many), nine ghostly 1/9th size images of the Mona Lisa appeared in a grid…. weird, but anyway keep going.
      After many more x number of thousand iterations the Mona Lisa reappeared complete, with some graininess due to roundoff but nevertheless clearly and distinctly. The last few iterations before she reappeared showed diagonal stripes in the opposite direction to the original transformation, with the stripes getting wider and wider with each iteration.
      The authors of the article noted it was like putting eggs, flour and milk into a blender, mixing it into a batter, then if you let the blender run long enough it will eventually turn back into eggs, flour and milk.

      • gabriel alberton says:

        If I remember well, this is shown in Anton and Rorres’ Elementary Linear Algebra: Applications Version, although they use an image of Mickey Mouse, not one of Mona Lisa.

        • NMC says:

          Thanks for the reference!
          I’ve found p 645 of the 11th edition in the chapter 10.13 Chaos the “Arnold Cat’s Map” applied to a picture of Von Neumann doing this: at the 375th iteration the photo is completely inverted, while some previous iterations show a more than blurry grey.

      • Senor DingDong says:

        That’s very interesting. If you saw the image when it was all grey you’d never guess it contained a hidden order. I wonder if anything like this happens in the natural world?

  4. magusjanus says:

    local v global issue.

  5. teageegeepea says:

    The laws of thermodynamics say that entropy always increases. But you can reduce entropy in one system by increasing it in the larger system containing it. And that second law of thermodynamics is just a statistical one premised on the past having an unusually low amount of entropy (Julian Barbour says the moment of the Big Bang is simply defined as the state-space with the minimum of entropy). The most fundamental laws of physics work in either direction of time.

  6. Coagulopath says:

    It reminds me of your “the laws of thermodynamics predicts that you can’t clean up a teenager’s messy bedroom” metaphor.

  7. Senor DingDong says:

    Living systems resist the 2nd law by taking in a stream of low entropy energy. After death they stop taking in low entropy energy and succumb to the 2nd law. Re-animating a dead organism would require undoing the increase in entropy. This doesn’t make it physically impossible just very difficult (depending how long the organism has been dead).

  8. Voltmetre says:

    Alessandro Volta was observing dead frog’s legs moving under electricity centuries ago. It is possible to temporary preserve a corpse and control muscles with small currents. Reviving dead brain cells that control heartbeat is harder.

    Looking at germs: “life” means “organelles operate”. I suspect lot of cells stop and resume operations every second so technically they are dying and resurrecting.

  9. danarmak says:

    The premise isn’t true even if it refers to information-theoretical death. A zombie isn’t the original person (and maybe isn’t a person at all). So you lost information (and increased entropy), but you got the body back up and lurching, does that count as alive? A silly question.

  10. Guy Tipton says:

    “The most fundamental laws of physics work in either direction of time.” for a very small volume. But when we sum up effects over a large number of volumes, an observable number lets’ say, then the arrow of time is evident.

  11. Eponymous says:

    Reminds me of that time I disproved the Theory of Evolution in 10th grade after learning about the Second Law. Good times.

  12. dearieme says:

    The cardiologist told me I’d died but that my heart had restarted because of the mechanical shock when I fell on my bike. So, it’s dead easy – just push a bike wherever you go.

  13. R. says:

    I’m not sure this is right.

    Of course zombies would be no problem because cells of a dead body would cease functioning very shortly due oxygen exhaustion. But making a freshly dead, not decayed body move briefly should be doable, no?

    But once ATP is gone and you can’t make any fresh one because no oxygen, it’s game over.

    • ohwilleke says:

      I think you are on the right track. Something very close to zombies actually does happen in real life. But, the trick is that it doesn’t happen by re-animating dead bodies. Instead, a parasite infects a living animal and takes control of it, en route to a premature death. Hence, we have zombies without offending the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  14. Smithie says:

    It is difficult to know where to draw the boundaries, when it comes to suspending disbelief regarding zombies.

    Let’s suppose you allow infinite motive force. Let’s say zombies are poison to micro-organisms, have SPF 100 skin, with the strength of cow’s leather. How many miles would the joints be good for?

  15. ohwilleke says:

    What a delightful Easter insight!

  16. RCB says:

    A more interesting field of biology to apply to zombies would be epidemiology and disease dynamics.

    For example, zombies eat humans… presumably to sustain themselves? But they can’t eat everyone they encounter, or zombie-ism can’t spread. You need to bite some and let them go for the trait to spread. Catch and release. This might explain why zombies are so slow and bumbling most of time. They have to be good enough to catch a few people, but awkward enough to let some slip away.

    As for thermodynamics, I always thought this was a good question for students: although cannibalism is common among many species, use thermodynamics to explain why a species can’t be obligate cannibals – i.e. only eat their own kind. Assuming, you know, they don’t also photosynthesize or something.

  17. Space Ghost says:

    How are we defining “alive” and “dead”? If we take some DNA and clone an organism, does that count as reanimating?

  18. David Chamberlin says:

    Backwards doesn’t work in complex biology. But we have to guard ourselves the following way from zombie attack. Rip the stairs out of your house and only go up a ladder you can pull up stairs. Once an organism dies the degradation of delicate systems quickly occurs and is irreversible. Place a dog, any dog, outside on a long leash and when it starts barking madly you know a zombie is going after it. Thermodynamics has other proofs that argue against bringing the dead back to life. Shoot the zombie in the head. And don’t underestimate the value of a sword, they never run out of bullets.

  19. I’m not sure this is an interesting question to anyone who has taken a class in Thermodynamics. The question is so trivial as to ignore answering.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I will bet you money that the majority of people that ever took a thermo course would get this wrong.

      • Jason says:

        Will you be posting the solution?

        • gcochran9 says:

          The answer is, you can decrease entropy with enthalpy. Reversing death, or reversing aging, is not forbidden by the laws of physics.

          • JB says:

            Ah, thanks! That’s what I initially figured, but it’s been 20 yrs since I took thermodynamics, and the way you were setting it up made then me think you had something else in mind.

          • jb says:

            It might not be ruled out by the laws of physics, but reversing death at least would sort of be like a chimpanzee trying to repair a Swiss watch with its bare hands. It doesn’t know how the thing works, and even if it did it doesn’t have the dexterity get a grip on the parts. Effectively impossible, even if there is nothing in the laws of physics that explicitly forbids it.

            (Aging is different from death — there might turn out to be a clever way to convince the body to reverse its own aging).

          • gabriel alberton says:

            Sure, if by aging you mean stuff like biological aging, wear and tear, not being all that effective anymore, gray hair and wrinkles, etc. but aging is not reversible in the sense something that is old (has existed for a long time) can become new again (has existed for a short time). That’d be traveling back in time, and if I understood it correctly, from the Second Law of Thermodynamics we have that the flow of time is unidirectional.

            Being a physicist, you know way more about this than I do, but aren’t there other ways to determine how old a -living- organism actually is (approximately) without relying on its appearance? Carbon dating?

            If that’s the case, we could find out how old you really are. Yup, you could have good teeth and a head full of hair; you’d still be 65, and we’d have ways to tell. No lying on Tinder.

  20. Cpluskx says:

    If you restore all the atoms that once made up the organism would it be the same organism?

    • gcochran9 says:

      And the appropriate electronic states, chemical bonds, etc: sure. Close enough for government work.

    • Rory says:

      Everyone’s here to poke fun at a silly question with a mistaken understanding of physics, bring metaphysics into this and you’ll spoil their fun.

    • Anonymous says:

      My science education ended at the age of 14, but may I ask what is the smallest combination of fundamental particles which has the property of heat as measured in joules and what is the smallest combination having distinct regions at distinct temperatures measurable in degrees Kelvin? Presumably, if the knowable universe consisted entirely of a single atom of helium it would not have these properties – or would it?

  21. James D. Miller says:

    Challenge accepted Greg: The laws of thermodynamics plus a universe that will spend an infinite amount of time in thermal equilibrium and a finite amount of time in other states implies that we are all Boltzmann brains and so lack the capacity to do anything (other than briefly think) including reviving the dead.

    • Esso says:

      It could be that fluctuations require “measurements” or something similar. That is: processes that increase entropy. A fluctuation out of a universal thermal equilibrium has a catch-22 there.

  22. Greying Wanderer says:

    i think the flood of zombie movies and shows is artsy people having visions of the future.

  23. Rich Rostrom says:

    Carbon dating tells how long something has been dead. Living organisms continually exchange.C atoms with the atmosphere, which has a fixed background level of C14 from cosmic-ray flux in the high troposphere and stratosphere. When an organism dies, that stops, and the C14 level in the material decays toward zero.

    The age of a living organism might be measured by its telomeres (DNA buffers at the ends of chromosomes which are shortened with each cell generations. But telomere length history varies among species in erratic ways, so it isn’t a “clock”.

    • gabriel alberton says:

      Thanks, that’s correct, but avoiding telomere damage is what Cochran likely means with halting aging. Preventing it could make you look young for much longer and have no age-related ailments (no cell senescence, no Hayflick limit), but you’d still age in the sense that you’d have been alive for a long time, and there might be a way to find out for how long (at least an estimate). Maybe other isotopic makeups in the organism change over time?

      Pardon my ignorance, I hadn’t thought about any of this before, and I realize it shows.

  24. Smithie says:

    This one and the design-a-perpetual-motion-machine one are only asked, so the correct answers can be stolen and patented.

  25. gcochran9 says:

    My boy talked to the prof: Prof genuinely doesn’t understand this.

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